SAN’A, Yemen >> Yemen, under intense U.S. pressure to crack down on al-Qaida, put an American-born radical cleric on trial in absentia Tuesday on charges of plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of the terrorist group.
It was Yemen’s first formal legal action against Anwar al-Awlaki and the court brought the same charges against two other men.
Yemen has come under heavy U.S. pressure to crack down on al-Qaida militants following the interception of two mail bombs in Dubai and Britain last week. The U.S. suspects Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s network, was behind the plot.
Al-Awlaki, 39, was born in New Mexico and is based in Yemen. U.S. investigators say e-mails link him to the Army psychiatrist accused of last year’s shooting spree at the Fort Hood, Texas military base that killed 13 people. They also allege he helped prepare Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for the attempt to bomb an airliner over Detroit last Christmas and they link him to the failed bombing in New York City’s Times Square in May.
Al-Awlaki’s English-language sermons advocate jihad, or holy war, and have inspired a number of Western-born militants. The U.S. has him on a list of militants it wants killed or captured.
U.S. officials have said they would like to prosecute al-Awlaki on American soil, particularly if they can get a plea and cooperation deal from the failed Christmas bombing suspect Abdulmutallab, but no decision has been made. In September, Abdulmutallab suggested in the Detroit federal court that he was ready to plead guilty to some charges, raising the possibility that his cooperation could form the foundation for a U.S. case against al-Awlaki.
Yemen’s decision to try al-Awlaki in absentia isn’t likely to affect any U.S. decision on bringing charges because the U.S. views Yemen as unreliable in holding its prisoners after the Arab nation released a number of high-profile prisoners.
Charging al-Awlaki in the U.S. would also make it easier for the U.S. to demand he be turned over. However, Yemeni officials have said they will not turn al-Awlaki over to the U.S. because, as a Yemeni citizen, he must be prosecuted there.
Prosecutor Ali al-Saneaa announced the charges against al-Awlaki as part of a trial against another man, Hisham Assem. Assem has been accused of killing a Frenchman in an Oct. 6 attack at an oil firm compound where he worked as a security guard. Assem, 19, denied all the charges and said he was tortured and forced to give false confessions.
Assem was present in court. But al-Awlaki and a third suspect, his cousin Osman al-Awlaki, were charged in absentia. The hearing was held under tight security at a courthouse in downtown Sana, Yemen’s capital.
Al-Awlaki is believed to be living in a mountainous region of Yemen, sheltered by his family and tribal leaders who say he has no ties to terrorism.
A letter purportedly from al-Qaida militants from al-Awlaki’s tribe was posted Tuesday on militant Web sites, urging the tribe’s leaders to join the group’s fight against the Yemen government. The letter suggests a possible split in the powerful Awalik tribe.
It warns the tribe’s leaders of “God’s punishment” if they ally with the regime.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has tried recently to organize tribal militias to aid its forces in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen. The letter urges the leaders to “support us in the fight against God’s enemies.”
The prosecutor in Tuesday’s trial said Assem, a guard at the French engineering firm SPIE, had acknowledged that he received Internet messages from al-Awlaki inciting him to kill foreigners he was working with.
Assem appeared at the hearing wearing blue prison overalls. According to the prosecutor, Assem told interrogators that al-Awlaki convinced him that foreigners are “occupiers,” and sent him audiotapes with sermons justifying the killing of foreigners when he hesitated.
The prosecutor alleged that on the date of the attack at SPIE, Assem followed a French manager and shot him dead in his office, then looked for other foreigners to kill, al-Saneaa said. Assem also shot at a British man, wounding him in the foot.
The prosecutor said Assem was put in indirect contact with Anwar al-Awlaki through e-mails he sent to Osman al-Awlaki.
The proceedings were then adjourned until Saturday to give prosecutors time to publish an announcement in the local papers notifying al-Awlaki and the third suspect of the charges against them and to assign a lawyer for Assem.
After Friday’s discovery of the two mail bombs that originated in Yemen, the U.S. and its allies on Monday further tightened scrutiny of shipments from the Arabian Peninsula country. Germany’s aviation authority on Monday extended its ban on air cargo from Yemen to include passenger flights.
A Yemeni government official in a statement Tuesday expressed “sorrow and astonishment” at Germany’s decision, describing it as “a mass punishment.”
The official also said that such a “rushed and exaggerated reaction to suspicious packages will harm Yemen’s efforts in combating terrorism and serves no one but al-Qaida terrorists who always sought to … hurt Yemen’s interests, reputation and relations with regional and international friends and partners.”
The statement did not identify the official, a common practice with the Yemeni government.